Spring Summer 08

The Core


Off to the Races

Practice Makes Perfect

Portraits of the Artists


Editor's Note

Vox Populi

Irrefutable Fun

Broadened Horizons

The Searchers

Fair Trade

Diamond Anniversary

Project Help

From Maroon to Marine

Dinosaur Discoverer

Go Ask Alumni

Eye on the Quads

Irrefutable Fun

After some lean years, the Chicago Debate Society is waxing—and winning—again.

Much like its home institution, the Chicago Debate Society (CDS) has a reputation for serious arguments based on economic and political science reasoning. So when an opposing team asked second-year James Conway and his partner to debate the wisdom of pop star Britney Spears restarting her career, they were surprised—and the judge was delighted—when the Chicago team peppered speeches with Spears’s song lyrics. “The other team didn’t expect us to be funny or knowledgeable about Britney. We even made a comparison between Britney’s career and Eric Clapton’s comeback,” Conway recalls. Chicago won the round.

This creative, extemporaneous style is the hallmark of American Parliamentary Debate and differentiates it from its cousins, Lincoln-Douglas Debate and Policy Debate. “Parliamentary debate is a lot less structured than other types of debate, and topics change from round to round. There is less research, and you learn to argue about everything,” first-year Julia Greenberg says. While the topics are not researched by the opposition in parliamentary debate, the form is prescribed. A “prime minister” presents a mock government’s policy. The two members of the opposing team take the contrary view. The pairs alternate speeches, responding to arguments and summarizing their own. “Other forms of debate focus on saying things in a fancy, erudite way, but parliamentary debate focuses on developing analytical skills. Its broad format allows for jokes, and it’s fun to develop cases,” Conway says. The emphasis on rhetoric and quick thinking leads many CDS alumni to pursue careers in law, politics, and consulting. Unlike many competing teams, CDS also draws students majoring in economics or even biology.

Conway and Greenberg are part of a wave of new debaters on Chicago’s team, which started in the 1940s with contests against local colleges. “Ordinary citizens would come to the competitions to watch,” says third-year Galen Simmons, the president of CDS. By the 1970s, the team was competing against East Coast schools, and traveled to an international tournament at the University of London, where it defeated the University of Oxford in the championship round. The team joined the fledgling American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA) in 1981. Of the colleges that regularly compete in APDA tournaments, only Chicago and Stanford are located outside the East Coast.

While the University’s location means that Chicago debaters attend fewer tournaments than their counterparts in the east, the team does well in competition. In 2006, current fourthyear Stephanie Bell placed first at Harvard’s tournament, receiving nearly perfect scores. At the 2007 national tournament, the team placed seventh after finishing in the top five in four of the past six years.

This year CDS boasts a robust team of 50 members, up from around 20 debaters in the early 2000s. Simmons attributes the growth to the society’s increased visibility through public debates, including the Langfan Constitutional Debate, which awarded $3,000 to the winning team last year, and debates sponsored by the College Republicans and University of Chicago Democrats. At one such debate, Simmons argued for the Democrats in favor of raising the minimum wage, although he personally disagrees with this stance. “People were on their feet clapping during my arguments,” Simmons says. “It gave me an immense sense of satisfaction, because I could have been even more persuasive if I had agreed with the issue.” Creative budgeting by CDS officers has also helped retain members by allowing them to attend more tournaments. “We use airfare prediction software to get the cheapest tickets, and sacrifice our personal comfort by sleeping on floors,” Simmons says. Uncomfortable lodgings and close quarters make for a close-knit group. “I like the team dynamic. It is very friendly because we travel together and get to know each other,” Greenberg says. Conway agrees, “One of my favorite experiences was having a team member’s parents cook French toast for the 18 undergrads who slept in their Manhattan apartment.” That camaraderie, combined with the skills debaters develop, can make CDS a life-changing experience. “Once you’re into debate, it dramatically alters your life. Before debate, I never thought about a career in law, or even knew what consulting was,” Greenberg says, “It sets you up for a career where you do presentations or argue.” However, in true Chicago spirit, she is keeping her options open.—Christine Minerva, AB’02